He doesn’t coach or play football, but Penn State University professor Terry Engelder says the NCAA’s punishment of his school casts a shadow over him and every other instructor there.
That’s part of why he joined three faculty colleagues, the family of late football coach Joe Paterno and 16 others on Thursday in suing the NCAA to overturn the oversight body’s sanctions, Engelder said. An NCAA decree the school administration accepted last July claimed “reverence for Penn State football permeated every level” of the university.
“It is that statement — that the entire university has allowed this culture to exist, in a sense — that slanders me as a faculty member,” said Engelder, a well-known geoscientist and natural gas researcher. “That simply can’t be allowed.”
A Penn State spokesman declined to comment on the litigation, and the NCAA did not reply to requests for comment. The university is not a party to the suit.
Paterno attorney Wick Sollers previewed the civil lawsuit this week on the NBC Sports Network, repeating the family’s long-standing complaints that the sanctions illustrate an illegal rush to judgment, lack sound reason and sully Paterno’s accomplishments. The football penalties ban Penn State from postseason bowl games for four years, impose a $60 million fine and clear the books of 111 wins under Paterno’s leadership from 1998 to 2011, among others.
NCAA officials imposed the sanctions after the Jerry Sandusky child-rape scandal and a Penn State internal investigation that found extensive cultural and leadership failures at the school.
A 40-page complaint filed Thursday in Centre County Common Pleas Court rips into those conclusions and how the NCAA used them to craft the sanctions. It lists plaintiffs including the faculty members, the Paterno family, five university trustees, two former coaches and nine former football players. The lawsuit alleges contractual failures by the NCAA, disparagement, conspiracy and defamation. It also seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.
“It’s more of a Penn State community lawsuit,” said plaintiff and school trustee Anthony Lubrano. He said many of the board’s 32 members had no opportunity to weigh in on the sanctions before university President Rodney Erickson signed off on them.
Paul V. Kelly, one of three attorneys representing the plaintiffs, alleged the NCAA violated its own processes.
“I suspect there are other members of the board of trustees who, once they read this document, will share their view that this ought to proceed,” Kelly said.
The Paternos have said any net proceeds from the litigation will go to charity, family spokesman Dan McGinn said. Kelly said he expects other plaintiffs would follow a similar route.
Yet independent legal observers said it’s not guaranteed the coalition will find legal standing in court. Should the case move to trial in Penn State-friendly central Pennsylvania, “I would say they have more than a sporting chance to prevail,” said Pittsburgh defense attorney Robert G. Del Greco Jr.
“I could see a Centre County jury saying yes,” he said.